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From peals of joy to somber tolling

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Last Saturday was one of the happiest and saddest days for me during my eighteen years at Notre Dame.

With scores of my brother Holy Cross priests, I entered the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to the joyful peal of bells to concelebrate the ordination Mass for two Holy Cross seminarians on a beautiful Easter Saturday afternoon. Both of them were fine young men; men I have known for six years. Each of them could have explored many different options other than the priesthood. Yet they both chose to become candidates for Holy Cross at Moreau Seminary several years ago. Today, they are my brother Holy Cross priests forever.

Yet, last Saturday was still a day unlike many others.

It is increasingly more difficult for young men to close any options they may have for their future, even if they have been seriously considering a vocation to the priesthood for years. This is understandable not only because of the Church’s requirement that priests, whether diocesan or religious, be celibate, but also because of factors within and outside the Church’s control.

There is the horrendous, inexcusable and sinful reality of clerical sexual abuse. Few people who are not priests will ever understand how this has affected the 98 percent of us who have been faithful to our vows, grateful for our calling to be priests and totally dedicated to those we are called to serve, whether at Notre Dame or in some other place in this country or beyond our borders.

There is our country’s role in a world where we are apparently the world’s only superpower, despite the fact that a billion people still live under communism and our country incurs hundreds of millions of dollars of debt each year. But we believe ourselves to be without peers in terms of our economic, military and political power. There are so many opportunities for money to be the basis for earning more money, without producing any material good.

There is the decline of priests, which in our country has meant that over 4,000 parishes have wonderful lay or religious parochial assistants, but do not have resident priests. So there is no Eucharist for believers for whom this is a birthright. Even while a debate may take place about the restrictions for ordination, this is not something we can do much about effectively, even if someone is so disposed.

In the face of this reality, we celebrated our ordination liturgy.

One of the two men to be ordained had recently learned that he had a slow-growing brain tumor. After serious surgery, he will spend the next year in Houston undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He will be in treatment for the next ten months. Yet for every day of each of those months, he will be a priest. Andy will have the privilege to celebrate the Eucharist every day because Jesus has called him to “do this in memory of me.”

Every ordination ceremony is a mini-retreat for a priest. We remember the day we laid prostate on the floor while the litany was sung, before we dared approach the bishop for ordination. We remember the time when the bishop laid hands upon our heads in the ancient sign of selection “we choose these men, our brothers, to be priests.” And we remember the scores of priests who laid their hands on our heads while we were absolutely taken up into the mystery of what we believed we were called to do with our lives.

But at the end of the Mass last Saturday, just before we processed out of the Basilica, we were told that Pope John Paul II had died.

He is the only Pope you have known. And he is the predominant person in every Catholics’ experience of Church, regardless of age. “John Paul II, we love you,” young people chanted. And he loved them in return. This is not so different from my personal experience nor that of my brother Holy Cross priests and brothers at Notre Dame, with regard to our relationship to you.

We know that young people respond to signs of affection, because you are so filled with affection yourselves. You instinctively look for signs of recognition for you as the individual, unique and good person you already are. When you, or we, are recognized by name, in the corridor of a residence hall or while passing on campus, we respond immediately.

Pope John Paul had a special gift and grace of connecting immediately and affectionately with all the young people he met. They loved him and they energized him. World Youth Days were one of the many ways a number of you came into contact with this man of God.

I have lost a father, and you have lost a grandfather. For all of us, a holy man, Pope John Paul II, represented what we want to be or to become. We can legitimately disagree with regard to points of Church discipline, if not doctrine. But at the end of the day, we are graced members of the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ on the apostles and their successors. We will always be in communion with Rome, the See of Peter.

As we left the Basilica after the ordination, the peals of joy turned into a somber tolling marking the death of a person we knew and loved.

The bells of the Basilica will again peal in joy when a new Pope is elected. Within a few years, we will surely celebrate a Mass together on a given day which will be the feast of St. John Paul II, the Great.

Holy Cross priests and brothers will then, as now, be with you at Notre Dame, energized by your friendship, your goodness and the faith which is our common call and bedrock, even in times of stormy days.

Father Richard Warner is the director of campus Ministry. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at Richard.V.Warner.2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.